The realization that his days as a baseball player were dwindling dawned on Kevin Barker one summer night in 2011 as he sat on a team bus somewhere in Mexico, rain pelting the windows and the crummy weather lending itself to contemplation.
Suiting up for Guerreros de Oaxaca, Barker was in his 16th year as a pro and while he could still hit – mashing Mexican League pitching to the tune of a .358 batting average and 12 home runs in what was his farewell season – there was no escaping the reality that it was likely going to be the last stop on a well-traveled journey.
“I think once one part of your life is ending and almost over, you start seeing the writing on the wall,” Barker said. “I started seeing that and I was trying to figure out what I’d be doing after baseball was over.”
The 1993 Virginia High graduate became a family man and has been married to his wife Hazel Mae (who’s been involved in broadcasting since 2001 on a number of television networks) for nine years and the couple has a son, Chase, who is 7 years old.
As for his involvement in the sport that is his lifeblood, some figured Barker might become a minor league coach or manager, possibly a scout or maybe a member of a front-office staff.
However, a conversation with a Canadian television executive charted the course of his post-baseball life.
“I just so happened to meet a guy named Scott Moore, who was Hazel’s boss at the time for Sportsnet,” Barker said. “We were sitting around talking one day and he asked me, ‘Have you ever thought of talking about baseball?’ I said, ‘Where would I do that?’ He told me I had a different way of going about it and the way I talked was different and he said it would be great on the radio.”
That comment proved prophetic and Barker is now heard on the airwaves of Sportsnet 590 the FAN in Toronto and has been the full-time co-host of “Baseball Central” since 2014, offering analysis five days a week alongside Jeff Blair as they dissect the game with the emphasis, of course, on the Blue Jays.
Barker does so with conviction, passion, humor and that noticeable Southwest Virginia twang as he has carved out his own niche in the Great White North.
“There’s nobody in Canada that talks like me,” Barker said. “You put the country boy in the big city talking baseball, it’s a little bit different.”
If you were to create a Kevin Barker baseball atlas it would take up quite a few pages with all the ballparks he’s played in, but the length of those pages would pale in comparison to a directory of former teammates the slugger has shared a clubhouse with.
Raised in the Washington County, Virginia, community of Mendota, Barker helped the Virginia High Bearcats win the 1993 VHSL Group AA state championship as a senior after spending his first three prep seasons at John Battle.
He homered in his first at-bat for the Virginia Tech Hokies and was the 1996 Atlantic 10 Conference player of the year in his final season in Blacksburg.
His MLB career consisted of 126 games over the course of five seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers, San Diego Padres, Toronto Blue Jays and Cincinnati Reds.
However, most of his playing days were spent in the minor leagues far from the spotlight as he faced the grueling grind for 1,800 games.
“There isn’t too much I haven’t seen,” Barker said. “I take full responsibility for my career. I had an opportunity to be a full-time big-leaguer and it didn’t happen, but I hold no grudges. Where I grew up is not the biggest place in the world and I came a long way thanks to baseball. Everything I have in my life is because of baseball. I have no ill feelings toward it.”
Those who played with Barker came to appreciate a guy who never mailed it in, always ran out groundballs and had a blue-collar work ethic that mirrored the area where he grew up.
“Juan Francisco played for the Blue Jays briefly and when he spoke to the media would use a translator,” Blair said. “Same with Edwin Encarnacion. One of the first days Barker walked out to batting practice, Francisco ran up and gave him a hug and started talking to him. Same with Eddie. I soon realized that when Barker said, ‘I played with him in winter ball’ about a player, he wasn’t joking. The number of visiting players he knows is scary. I mean, he texts Bryce Harper.”
It would be safe to say that Barker is an international man of mass appeal.
“When Kevin played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, I would fly down to watch him play,” said Hazel Mae, his wife. “I didn’t realize how popular he was with the fans until we walked back to the hotel and kids would follow us chanting ‘Ba-ker, Ba-ker,’ forgetting the R. The kids would always ask for his sneakers.
“Kevin would give one shoe to one kid and the other to another kid after signing them. I always got a kick out of watching him limp back to the hotel wearing just his socks. Kevin has a heart of gold, but he always came back home with fewer pairs of sneakers after a few months of winter ball.”
There was no doubting Barker’s passion for the game of baseball.
“Bark was a fun, loose, but fierce competitor that was always looking to win,” said Kory DeHaan, who played with Barker in the San Diego Padres minor league system. “He was a huge stick in the lineup and a great glove at first. He kept the clubhouse light by enjoying every day.”
Seeing the game from all kinds of angles can give one an unrivaled perspective and plenty of tales.
Barker drove in the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth inning of his MLB debut at Houston’s Astrodome.
He’s had a two-hit game against Mike Mussina, launched more home runs than any minor leaguer in the history of Louisville’s Class AAA franchise, vanquished foes in Veracruz and once went 0-for-8 in a 16-inning game.
“He’s a tremendous storyteller,” said Travis MacKenzie, the producer of Baseball Central. “One thing we’ve found amusing is that he’s seen so much throughout his career – the majors, minors and of course, winter ball – that he’ll just randomly bring up a story off-air and not realize it’s radio gold until it becomes an entire segment on the show.
“That happened once with a story of a teammate that had to miss time with a gross injury and again in telling the story of a time he had to pitch in extra innings in the minors after his team ran out of relievers and calamity ensued.”
There are plenty of Barker stories from those who played with him too.
“I remember him and [another teammate] would think I was crazy for throwing a ball up to myself, hitting it and chasing it across the outfield before every game,” said Adam Rosales, who played alongside Barker in the Reds organization. “I started raking for about two months straight and the next thing I know Kevin was doing the same drill with me too.”
He had a gift for gab even back then.
“I believe he always messed with the other team by starting rumors with the players who were on first,” DeHaan said. “He was always playing mind games with the opponents.”
It might have taken the listeners a while to get used to that dialect, but the guy with the distinct drawl has become endearing to those who tune the dial daily at noon to the show.
“His voice is terrific for discussing baseball, much like an English accent serves a person who talks about soccer very well,” Blair said. “It just does. There’s an inflection to it and a kind of natural sound to the words. Barker will laugh when I say this, but his voice is oddly soothing.”
Former Science Hill High School star Daniel Norris pitched for Toronto briefly and was a guest on Baseball Central once, prompting a discussion about their differing tones.
“The next morning, while sitting in our control room ahead of the show, Kevin asked us why, though he and Norris are from the same area, Kevin has an accent and Norris doesn’t?” MacKenzie said. “Jeff decided that it was a good idea to ask this question to Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, who managed Kevin with the Blue Jays, on that day’s show. Gibbons cackled and responded that Kevin was ‘from the other side of the hill.’ ”
The hour-long show ends each Friday with a segment in which Barker predicts scores – at the urging of Blair – for the Bundesliga League, the top pro soccer circuit in Germany.
“Anything to get him to say Borussia Monchengladbach,” Blair said.
Barker takes it all in stride.
“It’s fun and I am sure it makes some people smile,” Barker said. “Blair is a huge, huge soccer fan and I’m not. We’ve got random people who want us to come to these bars in Toronto and watch Bundesliga matches now.”
Barker has homered in Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, but taking a Josh Beckett pitch opposite field over the Green Monster poses a whole different skillset than offering one’s opinion and breaking down a game played the night before.
“When the red light goes on,” Barker said, “It’s a little different than trying to hit a fastball.”
Barker slowly had to find his own style and rhythm.
“I was nervous for him when he first started, because I know how tough and critical sports fans can be,” Hazel Mae said. “I’ve seen former athletes think just because they played the game, it would be easy to translate that success on the field into a broadcasting career.
“It was obvious Kevin had the knowledge and knew his stuff, but you could tell he was a bit green. To his credit, he threw himself into his work. He asked questions, was open to some coaching, learned to do his own research and in the span of one season, really came into his own as a broadcaster. I have to admit, it’s been really impressive to see how far he’s come in the short time he’s been doing this. I’m really proud of him.”
Well, you know what they say about a good woman being behind every good man.
You probably remember Hazel Mae from her days on the MLB Network.
“My wife has been there and done that and she’s helped me tremendously,” Barker said. “She’s very up front and if I say something on the show she’ll tell me if it makes a lot of sense or if it’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever said.”
His partnership with Blair has also been a blessing for both men, as the former big-league first baseman has a unique rapport with the guy who was a longtime sports writer in Canada.
“I don’t want to make his head any bigger, but I couldn’t do it without him,” Barker said. “Jeff will call people asses on the radio and he’s very straightforward. I was a little apprehensive when I started, but I remember him just telling me to be myself.”
Barker had never interviewed anybody before – he was usually the one being interviewed – but his questions to managers, players and baseball insiders on the show are thoughtful and reasonable.
He isn’t a stat head with commentary based solely on analytics, but he doesn’t totally dismiss them either.
“You know what he does a lot of ex-pros won’t do?” Blair said. “He’s comfortable taking calls from fans, which takes an enormous amount of self-confidence and empathy and shows you something special. … His knowledge is top-shelf, something I realized when I had two Jays coaches tell me after about two weeks of him doing the job that his information and analysis was spot on.”
Blair and Barker.
Barker and Blair.
It’s been a winning combination.
“Their like and respect for each other has been there from the start,” MacKenzie said. “They do personally like each other. They’ll go at each other on the air, but it doesn’t affect how they feel about each other off it. Also, they both have a sense of humor about themselves and can take a joke. That really helps their chemistry.”
There has been no Major League Baseball and thus no Baseball Central in 2020 due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the fact the players and owners can’t agree on the length of a season if it does begin.
“It hasn’t been the easiest thing sitting around finding things to do,” Barker said. “You get to know your spouse a lot better during this and we’ve tried to make the most of it.”
It’s been 27 years since Barker helped Virginia High win the state title and 21 years since he made his MLB debut. His fondness for the game remains steadfast as it did as a teenage slugger and a MLB rookie.
“Kevin was very dedicated to baseball at Virginia High and it was common for a group of us to routinely stay after practice to get extra batting practice,” said Bo Love, a high school teammate of Barker’s. “Kevin is fortunate to get to spend a career around something he loves. Whether he is playing the game or talking about the game, I’m not surprised he continues to be around baseball for the love of the game.”
As he sat on that bus south of the border in 2011 and reflected on a baseball career that was nearing the finish line, Barker didn’t know what the future might hold.
His future turned out to be one holding a microphone.
“He’s exactly what a player-turned-analyst should be,” MacKenzie said.
email@example.com | Twitter:@Hayes_BHCSports | (276) 645-2570